Vol XXVI, Art House & Semiology by Ken Champion

Vol XXVI, Art House & Semiology

Ken Champion is an internationally published poet whose work has appeared in over a hundred magazines and anthologies, including Rialto, Smiths Knoll, Magma, African American Review and Iodine Poetry Journal.

He has two pamphlets, African Time (2002) and Cameo Poly (2004) published by Tall Lighthouse and a full collection, But Black & White Is Better (2008). He has also had fiction published in literary journals in the UK and USA.

Ken reads in London and elsewhere and hosts More Poetry at Mug House, near London Bridge Station. He runs poetry workshops and is Reviews Editor for Tall Lighthouse. A selection of his poems can be found at The Poetry Library.

Born in London’s East End, Ken lectures in sociology and philosophy, and has worked as a decorator, sign writer, mural painter and commercial artist. He lives in London and has three sons.


Art House


I’d seen him around the college, he worked in Business Studies; big man, late fifties, intense, almost marched along, tweed jacket, un-pressed worsted trousers, the sort of face you wouldn’t want peering through the playground railings of your child’s school.
    He had read my parody of Edu-biz buzzwords and phrases in the house magazine…proactive encouragement of student-centred assimilation of conceptual bridges to facilitate non-arbitrary criteria of recourse-based parameters for …etc. and, literally bumping into me in the foyer, had told me how much he’d enjoyed it. I was mildly pleased; he may well have been the only reader not to take it seriously.
    Though I had never spoken to him, he obviously knew of me and perhaps knowing I taught an art course to mature students at the same college, and had done so for the last ten years, told me he bought paintings, mainly Victorian, mostly at auctions and would I like to see them. He owned a large detached house in a Victorian estate in East London and lived on his own, as did I, in a small, rather minimalist flat near my workplace.
    The next afternoon I went to see him. He lived on a street with an abundance of established trees in front gardens hanging over walls of London brick - the same as the houses, though some of these had been rendered and painted.
    His house was large and unprepossessing; scruffy, uncared for, shallow pediments above pseudo Georgian windows - I again wondered why Victorian architects, with the embellishments of colonial masturbation, had enjoyed destroying the perfect proportions of a twelve-paned box sash - and a roll of barbed wire across the top of the castellated garage. It was a sunny day, though the porch was dark, unlit and the maroon door had paint over the original glass from badly cut-in glazing bars. The bell didn’t work. There was no knocker. I tapped lightly on a muntin and the door opened immediately as if he had been standing behind it. He smiled me in with a weary gesture.
    It was the kitchen I noticed first; handle less cups on a dark wooden table, ketchup spotted floor, oil bound distemper peeling off walls, the smell of gas and a butler’s sink that was so full of pots and pans and bacon rind that I felt even he wouldn’t piss in. I followed him up the stairs; railings missing from banisters, Napoleonic grotesque glimpsed through a dusty bead curtain, sofa, the back of a headboard, a mahogany mirrored wardrobe perhaps tired of his naked reflections, walls of stripes and roses, a patterned pub carpet, the tinkling crystals of a chandelier.
    The paintings were in crude wooden racks in the loft, possibly fifty or more, their frames dust covered. He began pulling them out, looking at each one with a sort of apprehensive wistfulness before replacing it. There were cottages, fields, sheep, town hall faces, smug eyes, snug waistcoats, mayoral chains, nearly all covered in heavy varnish. A canvas fell to the floor, he stared at the back of it, then looking above my head - he had rarely looked at my face since I’d been in his home - muttered nervously that he wasn’t well. He started to stutter.
    ‘Th-there’s a lot here, they’ll take them. They’ll take them.’
    ‘Who will?’
    ‘People. They’ll get in, they’ll take all of them.’
    He looked straight at me. ‘B-Belmayes, I have to go to Belmayes.’
    I wanted to press my knuckles into my ears, pretend he hadn’t said those words.
    Again he said them, exactly as before, but whispering. Then, louder, ‘Take me there, please, I’m ill.’ He said this last very quickly.
    He scuttled down the stairs through the kitchen and into the long back garden. I followed. The door slammed behind me. He asked if I liked his ‘little plot’ and apologised for it being overgrown. He strode towards the back door of the kitchen, tried to open it and announced it had locked
    ‘I think the f-front door’s open.’ he said. ‘There’s a ladder here.’ 
    He pointed to a few rungs showing through the long grass. I pulled the ladder up and leant it against the back of the garage; climbed up, and realising I couldn’t drop down from the front because of the wire, dragged it across the roof and slid it down the front of the garage. Awkwardly stepping over the coiled wire I came down and went to the front door again. It was open. I went into the kitchen, unlatched the back door and, following him again, went through the hall, out and around the side of the house where there was an old Citroen, the grass partly hiding its hubcaps. Opening the passenger door he slumped into the seat and beckoned me with a flippant wave to sit behind a mould-splotched steering wheel and drive.
    The smell inside was foul, but surprisingly the car started first time. I bumped and stalled along for a while before I could control the vehicle adequately enough to trust myself on the main road. He sat there like a silent scream. I passed my own street ten minutes later; it looked darkly unreal. Two miles or so further on was the familiar chimney in the grounds of Belmayes Hospital. It wasn’t just the chimney that was familiar - that was a local landmark.
     I had been in Belmayes as a young man and didn’t expect, nor wish, to return for whatever reason. It was the local Bedlam. I’d stayed months; needle-pierced in early dawns, drifting into insulin-deep sleeps because they didn’t drop you into cold baths any more and playing football by order with a sugar water bottle in my fist, defying instant comas and watching a crazed goalkeeper stopping shots with his face. I dug the hospital allotment without knowing why, watched someone from Ward 4 scrape a pick across a long-stay’s scalp, blood covering his smiling teeth, and the stiff dances in F Ward with glazed-eyed girls were no incentive to leave my glass-walled mind.
    Fifty yards inside the gate now I stopped in a small, asphalted space outside an incongruous glass door at the bottom of what could have been a medieval keep and looked across at him. He was frowning and nodding rhythmically. This went on silently for minutes. Quietly I asked him what he wanted to do. He glanced at me, clambered out the car and walked hastily towards turreted psychiatry.
    Following him in I saw a stocky Jamaican behind a counter asking if he could help.
    ‘I want to see a doctor. Could I see him now, please?’
    There was no desperation, he had asked his question almost apologetically. He seemed to have stopped stuttering.
    He was told to wait. I think he was crying, his hands rigidly flat on the top of his legs. Quietly he told me to go. He’d be alright, he said.
    The man put a phone down and said someone would be with him soon. I didn’t know what to do or say. Tentatively I put my arm around his shoulders, not really wanting to touch him. Then a young doctor appeared, gently took the elbow of his potential patient and both turned into a narrow corridor and were out of sight.
    Driving back I wondered why he hadn’t packed a bag with some washing stuff, toothbrush, pyjamas, for surely he wore those. I put the car in his garden, churning the grass. For a while I sat, noticed there was still a small patch of mould on the wheel, then looked down between my legs and saw a smear of blood on my sock. The barbed wire must have cut me. Sunset suddenly silhouetted the house. I got out of the car and walked quickly away, as if fleeing childhood.

    The next day he rang me in the staff room. He was speaking from home. He wanted to sell his paintings and wished me to be executor. There were forms to sign.
    I looked around the room, usually a chattering chorus of pedagogy, a communion of roles across coffee spilt desks. At this moment there were only three of us; Colin, lording it over his empire of three desks, grin legitimating his loveable crassness, Durham accent ruling okay as he gleefully repeated how lucky we were that evolution had got it right by giving us thumbnails so we could scratch our arses, and Alan, head of our department, provincial man, established victim, cold wife, colder kids, a Co-op ceilidh the highlight of his month. It was ordinary, familiar, almost incestuously so. Now, here was this strangely authoritative voice telling me that I must take official responsibility for the sale of an art collection
    I told him that I had no classes and could get to him about two. I’d mentioned yesterday to no one.
    Stepping off a bus and turning into the long street I could see a cream coloured pantechnicon parked some two hundred yards away. I slowed, almost stopped, and then thought of him a few hours ago inside that square half mile of Neo-Gothic dismay.
    Moving more purposefully along the street and getting nearer to the vehicle outside his house I saw two men in brown smocks leaning paintings against the rear nearside wheel, then returning to the house again to get more. On the side of the van was written John Baines, Art Auctioneers, Cotteshall, Essex. The front door was wide open and a dustsheet thrown over the porch step and part of the hall. I went inside the house a little way and waited hesitantly. One of the men came down carrying a large painting of several sheep in the lea of a hill, the burnished gold on the tops of their heads and backs shouting second-rate Pre-Raphaelite. I asked if the owner was in the attic and receiving an affirmative nod went up the stairs, the second man passing me on his way down.
    He was looking at me through the open loft door, his eyes wide, greying hair sticking up as if it was gelled.
    ‘Do you think they’ll take them to Baines’s?  They could take them somewhere else, couldn’t they? They could take them to another auctioneers and do some sort of fiddle.’ He seemed frightened.
    I asked him if he had spoken to the firm’s office, he said he had, and I tried to reassure him that his paintings would get there. I didn’t inquire about the previous night.
    I gestured to him that I’d help take some of the paintings down. He pointed to a few of the smaller ones. I took them outside and leant them against the others. After bringing a few more down and realising how hungry I was - lecturing, or rather the way I proselytised, burnt up a lot of energy - I asked him if he’d mind if I went to a café somewhere for a quick bite. I didn’t want to eat where I was. Nodding, he said,   
    ‘Don’t be long.’
    I hurried to the other end of the street to the main road, but didn’t see any cafes. I wandered around asking people. Someone told me of a place near the Flats where I used to play as a child. I found it, ordered something. It took a long while to get to me. I ate it quickly, had a coffee.
    I walked back along his road, looking at privet hedges, scrolled gates, the black and white diamond tiles of front paths, and then looked up. There was no van. I stopped, feeling self-conscious. I wanted to run to the house, but couldn’t. I stood outside; doors and windows shut, the long grass, the car at the side where I’d parked it and the ladder still against the front of the garage where it had been all night. Neither of us had noticed it. I laid it alongside the car, went to the front door, knocked tentatively on one of the coloured glass panes, then harder. There was no sound from inside. I waited ten minutes or so, not knowing what to do. Remembering I had a class that evening I walked slowly back to the bus stop. Looking back along the street the air seemed dense and hard. I didn’t phone him. I think I was frightened to.
    I wondered about him for a week or so. Had he gone with the men in the van? Had
he decided to trust them and, maybe, gone back to the hospital again? Was he strong enough to get well in that place? Where were the forms for me to sign, did they exist?
   My interest in answering these questions gradually waned and after a while the episode faded away.

    Six days ago in a café opposite Liverpool Street Station I saw him. He was munching a meal and staring steadily at a far point just above my head. I had been there, eating and reading, for at least twenty minutes and hadn’t noticed him. I also hadn’t realised just how big he was. He looked well, was wearing a raincoat, tie and was well groomed. I was tempted to speak to him, give him a casual grin and ask coyly if he remembered me. Instead, I got quietly up, walked past him and crossed the road to the station.
    Leaving the train before my usual stop I went to his street and stood outside the house. I wasn’t quite sure at first if it was his - it had been four years - until I saw the rusting barbed wire.

    I sat on his front wall, my back to the road. I started swinging my heels rhythmically into the bricks, felt bits of pointing crumble away, kicked harder, wanted to smash the wall down, to pull the gate off its hinges, rip the grass from the garden, kick the side of his car in - though it wasn’t there anymore - wanted to put my foot through the front door, rip the wire away until my hands and arms bled. I don’t know why. I walked quickly along the road, started running, fists clenched, till I felt my fingertips would push through the palms of my hands. I was weeping.






Resting against the whiteboard he looked across to the empty chair on his left where Marci had always sat, until a year ago when her estranged husband’s jealousy had finally won and she’d left the course. He knew nothing of her and David, her lecturer, he was jealous of every man.
    It was a common story amongst mature female students. Men, feeling inadequate and frightened that their partners or wives were stretching towards new horizons - and wondering who was helping them get there - would occasionally come to the college and demand to know where their women were. When he asked for ideas for research projects a third of the females would opt for something to do with domestic violence, which he would turn into a working hypothesis that they could test.
    Hope was such a one. She would sit next to him when discussing her work with heavy bruising under her eye. She was twenty, the youngest in a class of thirty.  
    ‘I don’t deserve this, do I.’ she’d say.
    Marci used to sit there wearing a tracksuit, her braided extensions rising above a headband, gazing at him with Bambi eyes and a knowing mouth, and occasionally sipping brandy from a plastic bottle. He thought it was mineral water. 
    It had been a frenetic time. He’d been to a gym with her, seen the frown under the darktight nest of hair to ward off posing machos, the burnt umber skin, ear-to-ear grin, watched her puffing out her pain in press-ups, drowning her sadness in saunas, lifted weights with her, and attempted ungainly to keep time with her aerobics group. He’d held her up in a nightclub, rushed to her bedside in a local hospital because she’d collapsed, gazed at the zigzagging, merging colours on the screen whilst her liver was being scanned, and after being dragged for a sunset ride on the Barracuda at Southend, lying next to her on his bed like a contortionist dying in his own arms.
    The tables and chairs he’d arranged in a three-sided rectangle, for many mature students had had bad educative experiences when young and, especially at the beginning of an academic year, desks set out in well remembered rows would trigger the same fears. Most of the people on this course were from ethnic minorities, mainly African females, and nearly all went on to university.
    He played devil’s advocate. When he first met them he would explain that under the guise of an evangelical mission Europeans had introduced Christianity to Africa for the purposes of social and economic control of half a continent - the more politically aware would nod wisely - and that God hadn’t created us, but we, him; the real question being, why?
    The classroom would glow with outrage and anger and, often, pity. He wanted to shock their mindset, to create a sliver of a chance that he just could be right, thus helping them to detach, to step back. They were then halfway to a sociological view of the world, and that’s what he was teaching. There were always some female students who would say to him on their way out after the first lecture, lightly touching his shoulder as he sat at his desk, ‘We’ll pray for you.’ He was sure they did.
    He’d begun the sociology of deviance the previous year at the beginning of term two and started on the semiotics part the day before Marci had left. He’d suggested that the police worked within the class structure, had pre-existing concepts, ‘pictures in their heads’, of what criminality was and ‘criminals’ were like. He’d asked them for the signs the Bill pounced on.
The two Dagenham lads, who’d always sat together, immediately and in concert had said, ‘Workin’ class, innit.’
    ‘They’re protecting the bourgeoisie from the proles.’ Abosede had shouted, her Catholicism weakening after a month of Marx.
    He’d asked for the signals that would suggest ’working classness.’ Pam, the Afro-Caribbean had suggested it was the walk; another that it was the Sun stuck in back pockets of jeans. He’d then turned his back to them, bouncing on his heels, squaring his shoulders and asked for, ‘Two lagers, John.’
    He did this every year, ‘the calf muscle move.’ He’d then ask if they thought he was mimicking the son of an Emeritus Professor of Literature at Kings College, Cambridge - a cheap laugh, but it made the point. One of several Nigerians had said a car was an obvious clue, another, leisure activities and musical tastes, a usually silent Somalian suggested that accent and appearance were the obvious signals and, rather late, someone had suggested race. And so they’d gone on, most of them saying something and in the end creating a comprehensive coverage of perceived clues.
    Marci, as ever, had said nothing, merely looking at him steadily. He’d hinted strongly that there would be questions on this at the end of term and suggested a mnemonic to help them. Their answers came back like drumbeats, and they’d made up a little chant:
    dreadlocks, hip-hop, beemer, mean,
    tattoos, skins, hard, obscene
    Some of them had left the classroom happily singing it - possibly because they were going home to change for a birthday party for the twin girls in the class. He’d reminded them, tongue in cheek, they were to turn up in English time, not African.
    Now, he let this evening class go early. His car had been stored in the nearby motor vehicle buildings - and probably used for teaching - for the length of his drink and driving ban, and he was wondering how it would feel when he drove it for the first time in a year. Marci, a lot noisier then than when she’d occasionally slipped into the staff room, unheard and unseen, and put a sandwich - and even an apple - on his desk, had been involved in that, too.

    It had been decided that they’d go to a local East End pub for the party. He rarely drank, often being mocked by fellow brickies on the sites he’d worked on as an apprentice years before. The class had settled in well in the three months they had been together and most wanted to go. Marci he’d known outside the classroom since she had tearfully pleaded that her essay had been worth more than the grade he had given it because she had worked so hard; perhaps he should have realised then that she had emotional problems. He mumbled about professional integrity and encouraged her to work harder. He didn’t give in. He hadn’t the year before when a student who had done a lot of research on prostitution and, accompanied by her tough-looking CID husband and pitiful lame child - a two-pronged emotional attack - had harangued him in front of other staff to give her the Distinction she thought her work was worth. But, he rarely failed any one.
    The next day Marci had rung him in the staff room and asked if he wanted to go to a bar that evening with her and some friends; he’d thanked her and declined. Later that night, with tears in her voice, she’d rang and asked for his address. A little afterwards he’d seen her walking up a garden path some houses away peering short-sightedly at the number on the front door, a manoeuvre she repeated on the next one. Taking her hand he’d gently guided her to his flat.
    They drove to the pub late and on the way he’d made the mistake of mentioning the class flirt whom, apparently, he spent more time talking to in class than the others. The car stiffened; he was scared. She had this effect on him and however he analysed it, couldn’t prevent. She was out of the car before he’d stopped, towing his fear to the pub. Ignoring wondering classmates she pushed straight through to the bar and ordered a double brandy,
    There was a small stage to the side and on it was the girl who had organised this get-together and who was groining her mini-skirted thighs around and pushing them out at everybody standing around. The swot whose name he could never remember was next to her wearing a blonde wig and rhythmically lifting up a kilt, showing his briefs. The two Ugandans, looking like bouncers, were chuckling deeply and the Nigerian women, gold bangles and ear rings glittering, were quietly smiling, their Victorian values not far away; not for them the two inch band of flesh at their waists, tops of knickers showing. He noticed the Ghanaian women were wearing traditional dress, which seemed to glow, as did their smooth skins and saw the Romford Marxist leaning against the flock-papered wall frowning disapprovingly. Most of them looked very different from the way they did in class, and seemed genuinely glad to see him.
    He circulated, drank some wine - someone seemed to keep filling his glass - learnt more about Robert Gabriel Mugabe from an extrovert Zimbabwean student, and one of the older women came over to talk to him about social work. Then Marci was by his side, eyes narrowed. She turned and minced to the stage, jumped up and started dancing about in a clumsy, clattering way in front of a track-suited skinhead, repeatedly pressing herself against him. As she briefly pulled away there was a noticeable bulge in his crotch. She looked round at David and grinned. He strode across and pulled her off the stage. He could hardly see through the noise.
   ‘Get off, get off, get off!’ she shouted. ‘Let me go!’
    She tried to pull her hand away, he gripped harder, dragged her across to the door, and in a tiny chip of cold detachment saw them performing some exotic dance where the man strides smoothly across the dance floor dragging his sylph-like partner horizontally behind him. He was angry and as he pulled the door open glimpsed one of the Dagenham students hiding under a table. She continued to shout at him to let her go as he hurried her to the car parked across the road. He held her against the passenger door for a few seconds then ran around to open the driving-side door. She kicked the side of the car and continued doing so as he got in. He leant across to open the door for her and saw two women run from the pub towards her. He didn’t know them.
    ‘He’s her tutor, he’s abusing her.’ one shrilled. ‘He’s using his authority.’
    Again, the distancing irrelevance as he thought that this could be a cue for a lecture on perceptions of power. In the wing mirror he saw some men hastily cross towards him. He’d left the window down; the other woman pushed her arm in and grabbed his hand as it turned the ignition.
    ‘She’s with me.’ he said, as calmly as he could,’ I brought her here, she’s - ‘
    ‘I’m not!’ Marci screamed.’ I’m not with him, I’m not, I’m not!’ and then she began crying. He pushed the hand away and drove off.
    He stopped after a hundred yards or so and then went around the block to go back to see if she was okay. Slowly he passed the pub, a group of women were comforting her. He could hear her sobbing. He drove homewards. Nobody with her had noticed him.
    A few minutes later he was driving the wrong way down a one-way street and realised he was drunk. He stopped the car; it just happened to be outside of a small police station. A constable told him to get out. He did so and irrelevantly emptied his pockets, placing their contents on the roof of the car. He heard himself giggling as they slid slowly down.
   She was leaning against the porch when he got back. He opened the door and closed it behind them. She followed him to the bedroom. He let out a tortuous explosion of the evening’s emotions.
    ‘You could have got me lynched.’ he yelled. ‘Why did you lie? Why?’
    She suddenly slid down the wall and knelt on the floor. He picked her up and gently laid her on the bed. She slept instantly in his arms. He hadn’t mentioned the breathalysing. He held her tightly throughout the night.

    The last of them left the classroom - Hope remarking facetiously that she’d seen a squirrel in the college earlier and wanted to know if it was deviant - and just to make sure that the motor vehicle lecturer had got his message he glanced out the window to see if the car was outside the workshops. It was. He hurried down the stairs, wondering why he felt such anticipation at driving again, something quite ordinary, mundane even. He’d got used to buses.
    It felt immediately familiar. Driving slowly out the gate he turned westward, overtook two lorries and accelerated towards a main junction a mile away. As he neared it he became gradually aware that what was irritatingly taking his attention were flashing blue lights hitting the driving mirror.  Their significance escaped him - he even flicked the mirror up to dull the flashes - until he heard the siren and saw the panda car suddenly behind him. The traffic lights in front were red. He slowed and stopped. Turning in his seat he saw two policemen step out from either side of their car, their movements synchronised.
     He’d taught for nine hours in a twelve-hour day and was tired; he assumed he’d been speeding. He remembered the last time police had approached his car; the unbelieving shake of the head from the older one, the embarrassed grin from the other - who he hadn’t noticed at first - as he’d picked up his wallet, small change and comb from the roadside, and thought of Marci with her bloodshot beautiful eyes telling him the following morning that her husband was coming back and she wouldn’t be able to see him again. He thought also of the last lesson she’d had with him, what they’d all been discussing, and the little chant.
    Quickly he pulled two paperbacks from the glove compartment; Sociology and Philosophical Theory, and dropped them face upwards on the passenger seat. And as the two uniformed figures looked in at him from both sides of the car he lowered the window and raised the volume on Classic FM.